Game Review: House Flipper #amgaming

As you all know if you are regular reader here, I am an old gamer, with a great love for  epic console RPG games, the Final Fantasy empire being my all time favorite. I no longer have the time to sink into games like that, but I need a diversion now and then so I play computer games in the evening when the old brain can no longer write or edit.

The game I am going to review today is an odd one, something I didn’t expect to enjoy and couldn’t see the sense of. A friend of mine was quite thrilled with it, so I thought I would give it a try. I must say, this very strange game has been an experience.

House Flipper is an immersive first-person simulation game, developed by a European indie studio, Empyrean Frozen District and released by Playway S.A., through Steam. It was released on May 17, 2018. It has been a bestseller on Steam.

DETAILS:

  • Initial release date: May 17, 2018
  • Developer: Empyrean
  • Engine: Unity
  • Genre: Simulation Video Game
  • Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Macintosh operating systems
  • Publishers: PlayWay, Frozen District

I put off playing this game until after the second build, because several friends had mentioned it was quite buggy, and as a former beta tester, I don’t have the patience for dealing with buggy software any more. I did finally purchase it in January just before it updated and like the changes they introduced in February.

I use an Xbox controller for my PC and a mouse. There are options for keyboard users, but I do prefer games where I can use the controller.

There is no option to play as a woman. You walk into your first office, which must be cleaned and redecorated, only to find a real macho man lives there. You apparently have no housekeeping skills as you are living in filth. Cleaning your way into your home, combined with a few jobs to earn money for your first flip, is your training ground.

At first, you can only pick up and clean things and remove trash. As you do a few jobs that will be sent to you via your laptop’s email, you begin to gain other skills, such as painting, tiling, knocking down and building walls, and most importantly, selling things the previous tenants left behind. The money you earn doing those jobs enables you to purchase your first house.

The graphics are exceptionally good. While I’ve played many front-view camera console RPG games, I’ve been playing top-down PC games for a while. It took me a while to adjust to the interactive aspect of the 3-D front-view camera. I found controlling the character’s movements was a bit of a challenge until I went to settings and slowed the mouse sensitivity.

The way a player can move things around within the predefined parameters is nice.

Painting walls is time-consuming and boring but satisfying, just like in real life. Cleaning is time-consuming and boring but satisfying, just like in real life.

While the options for purchasing new finishes and furnishings are limited, they’re interesting and work well. The floor plans are of a style that is uncommon here in the U.S., and are highly compartmentalized.

I suspect the houses reflect a common European style, which is interesting to me. The kitchen appliances are also quite different from what I am used to, so that was fun. Ovens don’t seem to be high on their priority list, and I’m excruciatingly lazy–if dinner isn’t made in the Crock-Pot, I put it in the oven. Hell will freeze before I stand in front of a hot stove for more than the time it takes to make a pancake or two.

I like seeing the differences in the house layouts and styles from what I am used to. It’s interesting to see a different culture’s idea of the perfect kitchen.

While I do like this game, I have a few thoughts as to why it sells well and has a loyal fan-base, despite its (sometimes fatal) flaws.

Some flaws I’ve noticed:

Did I mention that there is no option to play as a woman? Well, there isn’t, and the first office is really creepy in a disgusting low-life mechanic’s hovel kind of way. The minute I gained the ability to sell things, I ditched the nasty girlie poster and sold the ratty chainsaw. In fact, selling all his tools and the filthy furnishings that come with the first place netted me enough to furnish it quite tastefully, thank you.

The vacuum tool is awkward and inefficient but eventually works. However, you are rewarded for the boring tasks by being able to choose furnishings and leaving the place in nice condition.

The dialogues about the prospective purchases and emails for jobs have been translated into English, but the syntax is sometimes wrong, so they’re difficult to follow. That doesn’t really matter, as the houses themselves are the important point of this game. Also–I speak no Polish, so the fact these gentlemen have gone to the trouble of making an edition in English is very good.

Hilariously Easy to Commit Operator Errors:

As I mentioned above, I use an Xbox controller. If you aren’t really careful when switching tools, you can accidentally sell an object you had intended to keep, such as, oh say, the plumbing for the toilet. When that happened, I couldn’t believe it—I laughed like a loon. The idea of being able to sell the plumbing out of a house is funny, but it’s annoying when it is not intentional.

One mistake and oops! The plumbing is gone, and there’s no going back. It costs quite a bit to replace the plumbing, and you don’t get as much for it as you must pay to replace it.

You can inadvertently sell the radiator you just bought. Doh!

In fact, if you aren’t really careful when switching tools or aiming the selling-tool, you can accidentally sell any replaceable object in the game.

One of the funnier YouTube videos about this game shows one of the players for the Beta Version discovering he can sell all the possessions of a house he has been hired to clean. That bug was addressed before the game was published so you can’t do that now. But if you skip ahead to 8 minutes into it, this video clip really is hilarious. IGP Stole Everything

Random Flaws Inherent to the Game:

Occasionally, you open your game only to find that when it loads, the colors of some furnishings have randomly changed, such as a steel refrigerator becomes bright red (the default color).

Also, I opened the game one day only to find a newly painted section on the outside of a house had reverted to its original Pepto Bismol-pink color. I had to buy paint and scaffolding—again—and take the time to paint it, again.

Sometimes the fabric on chairs will revert to the default color.

Those are annoyances, but the worst annoyance is a fundamental bug that randomly leaves the “ghost” of an object where it had originally been, so you can’t place furniture there, even though the space looks clear. I discovered how to resolve this accidentally when I couldn’t put a sofa in the place one had originally been, and when I pointed the selling-tool at the visibly empty spot, I was able to sell the ghost object for $52.00. Score! The ghost object was the wallpaper bundle that I had redone the family room with. Once I had sold all the ghost objects, I made $156.00.

Like all good fantasy authors, the developers seem to have become sidetracked by the doomsday prepping aspects of life. Many of the homes have underground nuclear fall-out shelters. Fortunately for all us virtual survivalists, the developers have included in the store a large array of items you can purchase for that nerve-center of any modern home, the bunker.

The inventory of houses to flip is limited, but each one has a unique history. They all look like squatters had camped for weeks and left their trash there. A couple of the houses have much darker histories, and one is downright frightening. That was fun to resolve.

The game takes forever to load. I do a lot of graphic design, so I suspect the massive database of images and graphics are what hangs it up, so I don’t mind waiting.

To Wrap This Up:

All in all, House Flipper is a fun game that a person can get quite involved in, but it feels unfinished as if they didn’t quite get all the beta concerns resolved before they rushed it to publication. That is a common mistake we indies in all walks of the arts often make.

I’m looking forward for the next DLC update for this game, which I understand will allow the player to clean up and landscape the overgrown yards. The developers plan to have it out in the first quarter of 2019, but I’m willing to wait for it to be completely tested and all bugs addressed first.

For the most part, the game is immersive. An odd thing that I like about this game is the fact that unlike some MMORPGs, you can play for an hour or so and easily walk away from it. It remains enjoyable but doesn’t become an obsession.


Credits and Attributions:

House Flipper Logo, © 2018 by Frozen District, Fair Use

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#FineArtFriday: The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table by Salvador Dalí, 1934

About the painting, from Wikipedia:

The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table is a small Surrealist oil painting by Salvador Dalí. Its full title is The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used as a Table (Phenomenologic Theory of Furniture-Nutrition). It makes reference to The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer, a famous seventeenth-century work in which a painter, thought to be a self-portrait of Vermeer, is depicted with his back to us, in distinctive costume. It is one of a number of paintings expressive of Dalí’s enormous admiration for Vermeer.

Vermeer is represented as a dark spindly figure in a kneeling position. The figure’s outstretched leg serves as a table top surface, on which sits a bottle and a small glass. This leg tapers to a baluster-like stub; there is a shoe nearby. The walls and the distant views of the mountains are based on real views near Dalí’s home in Port Lligat. In Vermeer’s painting the artist leans on a maulstick, and his hand is painted with an unusual blurriness, perhaps to indicate movement. In Dalí’s painting Vermeer rests the same arm on a crutch.

What I love about this painting:

I love the composition, the detail Dali puts into Vermeer’s hair and doublet–the attention Vermeer applied to his own work. This speaks to me of the desert, the way the sky looks in the afternoon just as the hottest part of the day slides into a cooler evening. Vermeer, the Master of Light, is enjoying the view. He is shown in a small courtyard, enclosed. Vermeer rarely left his rooms in Delft.

 

It is unsigned and undated but known to have been completed c.1934. It is currently on display at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, on loan from the E. and A. Reynolds Morse collection.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Ghost_of_Vermeer_of_Delft_Which_Can_Be_Used_As_a_Table&oldid=861917029 (accessed March 1, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Johannes Vermeer – The Art of Painting (detail) – WGA24677.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Johannes_Vermeer_-_The_Art_of_Painting_(detail)_-_WGA24677.jpg&oldid=268076769 (accessed March 1, 2019).

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Characterization #amwriting

The stories that interest me most have a strong character arc.  The protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events they experience, they are transformed. Often they change for the better, but sometimes the change is for the worse.

Each time I open a new book, I want to meet a circle new of friends, each of whom is distinguishable from the other characters. Every one of them must be a unique person with a distinctive thought process. What choices will they make, and how will those decisions affect their life?

Consequences are key to the forward momentum of the plot.

I have used the word consequences before when talking about the choices our protagonist must make. I use that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions, what is the story about?

Equally, I want the side-characters and antagonist to be just as singular with their reactions and choices as the protagonist is.

A bit of unpredictability to a character’s nature keeps them interesting. They have an air of mystery—how will they react in a given situation? It must be slightly random, but please, keep it real and in character.

In other peoples’ work, I particularly notice when a protagonist or side-kick’s gut reaction causes them to act out-of-character for the person they have been portrayed as, up to that point. Am I able to see it in my own? I hope so.

Even in a fantasy setting, all the characters must be believable. If the author introduces an elf to me, I want to believe in that elf. I want to see him/her as if they are real throughout the entire story. I want to be invested in them for their entire arc, and I want to care what happens to them.

The motivations are crucial. What drives them and what will they do to achieve their goal. Just as importantly, what will they NOT do? What is out of character for them?

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story. Agency is the power of an individual to act independently. When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices.

When I am first writing any story, giving my characters agency is difficult to do. This is because, in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me. I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth.

At some point in every great novel, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. In the second draft, I see this moment as an opportunity to learn who they really are as individuals. The events leading to that point break the character, knocking them down to their lowest emotional state. How do they react? What keeps them pushing on in the face of such despair?

At times, I have a character I simply can’t figure out. I do a character study, and in that short document, one of the questions I ask myself is “What personal revelations come out about them?” Also, I ask, “What does he discover about himself?”

When those questions are answered, I look at the final event, the situation that ends the story. These people’s personal quirks and characteristics, their moral compass influenced the decisions that led them to that place.

Did I keep those clues distinct to that character, or was there a blurring of personalities, making the group all sound and look alike?

Most importantly, those people must have understandable motivations. We can’t be too obscure in trying to keep the air of mystery because if a reader can’t follow our protagonist’s reasoning, we haven’t done our job.

It’s part of the balancing act—creating intrigue yet making it believable. As I have said many times, this is a gig where I never stop learning and trying to grow in the craft. Reading is the key. Every story that leaves a mark on my heart has unique, individual characters that I can relate to. Even if I don’t like them, their motivations make sense because they are in line with how that character would think.

If I can visualize my characters as real people that I know and believe in, hopefully my readers will believe in them too.

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Conflict, Tension, and Pacing #amwriting

When we sit down to read a book, most readers don’t consciously look for certain key elements, but we know when something is missing. Unfortunately for most authors, I am not most readers. I can’t just read a book anymore. I must dissect it to see what makes it tick. When a story works well, I  want to know why. Then, as needed, I hope to incorporate that bit of author-magic into my writing.

Consider conflict—What pushes the characters? What element drives and forces the momentum of the story?

My book reading group just finished Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had read it in 1985 when it was first published, re-read it for a book review five years ago, and re-read it again for the group’s February book. I don’t like the book, but I admire it.

I know–that doesn’t make sense. But it does, because I admire it in a purely mechanical, technical way.

From Wikipedia:

Ender’s Game is a 1985 military science fiction novel by American author Orson Scott Card. Set at an unspecified date in Earth’s future, the novel presents an imperiled mankind after two conflicts with the Formics, an insectoid alien species which they dub the “buggers”. In preparation for an anticipated third invasion, children, including the novel’s protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, are trained from a very young age through increasingly difficult games including some in zero gravity, where Ender’s tactical genius is revealed.

Even though I had read it before, I became involved in Ender’s story on this third read primarily because the author did all the right things.

This, despite the fact I don’t care for Card’s writing style. His ability to convey both character and story outweighs the irritation I have with the prose and style of his work.

  • The plot is always moving forward.
  • There is no overuse of backstory.
  • Showing is well-balanced with telling—it’s not obnoxiously in-your-face with descriptions of minute facial expressions but has enough active prose to keep the reader involved in the narrative.
  • The characters are shown to have a believable internal/external struggle, even though the book is about training children to kill.

Card explores the theme of “Compassion vs. Ruthlessness,” and the book has some exceedingly violent scenes. The three Wiggins children are the primary characters, with Ender being the main protagonist.

Ender is compassionate, and yet ruthless. One thing I found disturbing is that in the book, Ender was 6 when he leaves Earth for Battle School and 11 by the time of the final examination battle. During that time, he has killed (in self-defense) two boys who were bullying him, and untold numbers of the enemy, although he never learns that he caused their deaths until much later.

Valentine, Ender’s older sister, is compassionate, but without the power of ruthlessness both Ender and Peter demonstrate. She becomes Peter’s accomplice.

Peter, the oldest of the Wiggin children, is ruthlessness embodied and is utterly without compassion—a sociopath. His one ambition is to rule the world, and he will stop at nothing and use anyone to achieve that end. Yet, despite his personal lack of compassion, he turns out to be a good ruler. Evil in this book is represented by his acting for the wrong reasons, regardless of the outcome.

I may not like his style, but I have a great appreciation for Card’s ability to reveal a character, and I admire the way he paced the narrative.

The resolution of one conflict leads to another, which is resolved and turns into another—the author keeps the pressure on, raising the tension by always raising the stakes. Yet, he gives both Ender and the reader a chance to rest a little and regroup before flinging them into the (slightly more intense) action again. In these less intense moments, the story is still moving because we are learning something we didn’t know, and that knowledge is crucial to what may follow.

The serious topics of genocide and Western expansionism are explored. These actions are justified or regretted depending on the character in this book. Also, we see lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics acted out in a Military environment by bright young children.

The eternal problem of intention and morality is explored. Ender is able to strike and kill his enemies yet remain morally clean.

Those themes fuel the narrative and push the story when the physical action has temporarily calmed. They drive the conflict, create a constant raising of tension, and allow the pacing of the book to hard and fast but not overwhelming.

It is easy to unbalance a narrative by not allowing the reader to rest between scenes of intense violence and action. A scene that is all action is confusing if it has no context. Conversations are crucial because they give context to whatever action follows.

In any story, the crucial underpinnings of conflict, tension, and pacing are bound together. Go too heavily on one aspect of the triangle and the story fails to engage the reader. Balance the three, and the story works even if the reader doesn’t care for the writer’s style or prose.

The book group is going to read The Tattooist of Auschwitz next, for the May meeting. This is a book I haven’t read yet, so I’m looking forward to it. I will be looking at how characters are portrayed, what makes them compelling,  and how the pyramid of conflict, tension, and pacing pushes their growth.


Credits and Attributions:

Cover art, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, published 1985 by Tor Books,  Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, “Ender’s Game,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ender%27s_Game&oldid=880941502 (accessed February 25, 2019).

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#FineArtFriday: Rembrandt Peale, self-portrait

About the artist via Wikipedia:

Rembrandt Peale (February 22, 1778 – October 3, 1860) was an American artist and museum keeper. A prolific portrait painter, he was especially acclaimed for his likenesses of presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Peale’s style was influenced by French Neoclassicism after a stay in Paris in his early thirties.

Rembrandt Peale was born the third of six surviving children (11 had died) to his mother, Rachel Brewer, and father, Charles Willson Peale in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on February 22, 1778. The father, Charles, also a notable artist, named him after the noted 17th-century Dutch painter and engraver Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. His father also taught all of his children, including Raphaelle PealeRubens Peale and Titian Peale, to paint scenery and portraiture, and tutored Rembrandt in the arts and sciences. Rembrandt began drawing at the age of 8. A year after his mother’s death and the remarriage of his father, Peale left the school of the arts, and completed his first self-portrait at the age of 13. The canvas displays the young artist’s early mastery. The clothes, however, give the notion that Peale exaggerated what a 13-year-old would look like, and Peale’s hair curls like the hair of a Renaissance angel. Later in his life, Peale “often showed this painting to young beginners, to encourage them to go from ‘bad’ to better…”[1]

In July 1787, Charles Willson Peale introduced his son Rembrandt to George Washington, and the young aspirant artist watched his father paint the future president. In 1795, at the age of 17, Rembrandt painted an aging Washington (with whom he shared a birthday), making him appear far more aged than in reality. The portrait was well received, and Rembrandt had made his debut.


Credits and Attributions

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rembrandt Peale self-portrait.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rembrandt_Peale_self-portrait.jpg&oldid=336752881 (accessed February 22, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Rembrandt Peale,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Rembrandt_Peale&oldid=879098650 (accessed February 22, 2019).

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Characters: the Legalities Rant #amwriting

Reality is stranger than anything I could write. This is why I write fiction—I put reality into more palatable chunks so I can digest it better.

Drawing on the real world to help design the unreal is where good world building comes  into play. However, we shouldn’t use the real names and exact situations of people we are acquainted with in our work. Don’t thinly disguise them with a different name—they can sue us.

Consider the late Betty MacDonald, whose first published book was picked up by J.B. Lippincott. The Egg and I is a fictionalized account of Betty’s life as a chicken farmer. It was set in Chimacum, a small community in rural Washington State. The book was a success, selling well over a million copies and spinning off several movie adaptations.

It also spun off several lawsuits for defamation of character. Although the book was a critical and popular success at publication, in the 1970s it fell into disfavor because of the clichéd treatment and lack of understanding of the culture of our local Native people. The book did give rise to a perception of Washington State as a place full of eccentrics.

We are different, but every part of the country has its oddballs.

From Wikipedia:

Post-publication lawsuits

Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian “Crowbar.” The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins’ (who was also one of the presiding judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as “Pa Kettle.” On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.[3]

Some ideas will come to us from real life, but if we are writing fiction, we must never detail people too closely. If you become a success, some people may see that as their ticket to a little extra money at your expense. This, despite the disclaimer we put on the copyright page:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.

We can and will, however, draw impressions from them.

A common “coffee shop” game is a good way to develop characters for your stories and won’t get you sued. When you go to a coffee shop that you don’t normally frequent, sit and watch your fellow patrons. Observe their behavior, their speech habits and unconscious mannerisms. It’s easy to imagine who they might be and build a whole fantasy about them.

That character sketch is the kernel that can be the start of a short story or even a novel–and all of it is fiction.

You don’t actually know a thing about them other than they like a Double Tall Vanilla Soy Latte with cinnamon sprinkles. The idiosyncrasies you see in strangers will give rise to a character you can use without risking your financial security and your reputation.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “The Egg and I,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Egg_and_I&oldid=878829393 (accessed February 20, 2019).

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The Jones Kerfuffle (and why we need a theme) #amwriting

I had intended to do a dissertation on the “Jones Kerfuffle” today, but the importance of theme also reared its head. So, here are the highlights of the Jones debate and the facts as presented by Merriam-Webster Online. (Theme follows Jones because we’re doing this alphabetically.)

  • You can visit the Jones family
  • You can go to the Jones’ house or the Jones’s
  • You can buy a boat from Bob Jones.
  • You can try keeping up with the Joneses, but the Smiths will out do you every time.

Merriam-Webster Online says:

The plurals of last names are just like the plurals of most nouns. They typically get formed by adding -s. Except, that is, if the name already ends in s or z. Then the plural is formed by adding -es.

the Smith clan → the Smiths

Jill and Sam Clarence → the Clarences

Mr. and Mrs. Jones → the Joneses

the Fernandez family → the Fernandezes

But what about adding an apostrophe s to names ending in s? Like Jones?

Merriam-Webster Online also uses “Jones” as their example:

For names that end in an s or z sound, though, you can either add -‘s or just an apostrophe. Going with -‘s is the more common choice:

The car that belongs to Jones → Jones’s car or Jones’ car.

You can borrow Bob Jones’s lawnmower. Yes, I did add an s after the apostrophe because casual is how I roll. You can borrow Bob Jones’ lawnmower if you wish to be technically correct and formal about it. Whichever you choose, be consistent.

Now, with that out of the way let’s talk about snow and theme.

Where I live, we’re just digging out of three weeks’ worth of a hard winter. We had a huge amount of snow fall in the Pacific Northwest, over 25 inches (we rarely get more than 8). For the space of nearly three weeks, it seemed as if the snowpocalypse had happened. Our back garden was hit quite hard—some of our older more well-established plants may have to be removed.

People were taken by surprise here, and some of their stories made good Facebook posts. The lack of road noise and occasional loss of the internet was quite conducive to my getting some writing done.

During those dark, quiet days, I managed to revamp a story that I had been unable to sell. I submitted it to an anthology, and the editor liked it. In that experience I discovered why I couldn’t find a home for it: there was no underlying theme to unify it.

I loved the characters and the setting, but somehow the original story fell flat. The first rejection had said it was too dark, too sad. So, I tried to brighten it up.

The next rejection said only that it didn’t have enough romance. As it was a story of a man dealing with his ex-wife, I thought they had missed the point.

But actually, they hadn’t—I had. What I didn’t see was there was no particular theme giving the story direction. It was merely a tale of love lost.

When I pulled it out and dusted it off for this attempt, I had to reshape it to fit a themed anthology. That is when I realized there was a glaring opportunity for romance, just not with the two people I thought the story was about.

When I had that epiphany and applied the theme, it became a story of emancipation from the past.

Once I had that awakening, I fell in love with that story all over again. The story that emerged was the one that my subconscious muse must have wanted all along. It just  hadn’t communicated that to me.

My subconscious muse is like that—stubborn, refusing to speak, expecting me to just know what it’s thinking.

Theme is a subtle aspect of any written work. It is rarely stated in a bald fashion, but even if it isn’t obvious, theme is a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.

We write so many short stories, and some find good homes in anthologies and other publications, and others don’t. When the story is good enough but “lacking something” indefinable, even the members of our writing group may not see why a particular story isn’t working.

I have been sharply reminded to take a good look at how strong the underlying theme is when a story doesn’t work. Theme is the foundation the story rests on.


Credits and Attributions:

Why is it “Socrates’ Deathbed” but “Dickens’s Novels”? A guide to names in their plural and possessive forms by Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary copyright © 2015 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated

George Henry Durrie, Hunter in Winter Wood, Public Domain

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#FineArtFriday: Portrait of Christian Krohg by Oda Krohg

Today’s image is a portrait of Norwegian artist, Christian Krohg as painted by his wife, Oda Krohg.

What I love about this painting:

We see Christian in his bohemian glory. His lush beard is combed just so; his shoes are shined, and he looks every inch a gentleman of the town, yet he doesn’t look like a dandy. A parade with a brass band is happening in the background, a fanfare for the man himself.

The background details are there in impressionistic strokes, but Christian himself stands out sharply, a man who could never fade into the background. He is good-humored, passionate, a warrior for the underclass–Christian Krohg commands attention.

About the artist, via Wikipedia:

Oda Krohgnée Othilia Pauline Christine Lasson (11 June 1860 – 19 October 1935) was a Norwegian painter, and the wife of her teacher and colleague Christian Krohg. She was the second daughter of public attorney Christian Lasson and Alexandra von Munthe af Morgenstierne. Her maternal grandmother was a Russian princess. She grew up in a liberal-conservative household, along with eight sisters and two brothers. Her brother Per Lasson became a noted composer and her sister Caroline Bokken Lasson a singer and writer.

In 1881 she married the businessman Jørgen Engelhardt (1852–1921), with whom she had two children. She split from Engelhardt in 1883, and divorced him in 1888. In 1885 she became a student of Erik Werenskiold and Christian Krohg, the latter she would marry in October 1888. In 1885, their daughter Nana was born, and in 1889, their son Per, who also would be a notable painter.

Oda was noted for both her talent and her passion for life. She was a champion of social justice and devout bohemian. Her life with Christian was filled with drama, with both having many affairs, but they always returned to each other. The two were reunited in 1909 and remained together until his death in 1925.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg av Oda Lasson Krohg OB.01508.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg_av_Oda_Lasson_Krohg_OB.01508.jpg&oldid=336341196 (accessed February 15, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Oda Krohg,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oda_Krohg&oldid=871328815(accessed February 15, 2019).

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The Apostrophe #amwriting

Today we’re looking at the sometimes confusing apostrophe. It has many uses, but I will only delve into the most common ways we use it in creative writing today.

In creative writing, the apostrophe is a small morsel of punctuation that, on the surface, seems simple. However, certain common applications can be confusing, so as we get to those I will try to be as concise and clear as possible.

First up, we all know that we use the apostrophe to denote possession:

  • This is George’s cat. (George owns this cat.)
  • This is Jorgensen’s cat. (A person who is going by the surname of Jorgensen owns the cat.)

Where this gets a little tricky is in the possessive form of a surname when it refers to the whole family. In this case, you insert a grammatical article (the) and make the name plural, and then add the apostrophe:

  • This is the Jorgensens’ cat. (The Jorgensen family owns the cat.)

If the Jorgensen family have a sign made for their front porch, they would have it made to read “The Jorgensens’ Home” (not “The Jorgensen’s Home,” as that would imply that only one Jorgensen lives there, and his legal name is “The Jorgensen.”)

When two or more people (or other entities such as businesses) are described as separately owning something, each name should be in the possessive form:

  • “Ralph’s and Janet’s cars are the same model.”

However, if Ralph and Janet share possession, include an apostrophe and an s after the last name only:

  • “Ralph and Janet’s car is a Prius.”

In some cases, we need to use plurals of abbreviations. In a military thriller, you might need to say, “They disarmed several IEDs.” (We would not use an apostrophe: IED’s.)

Writing a year numerically has been an area of confusion for me. This is because I rarely have had to write years in this way until recently and the use of an apostrophe for this is now considered outdated. However, this is how they should be written:

  • The tavern culture of the 1600s was flourishing. (1600’s would not be considered incorrect, just old fashioned.)
  • Dresses in the 1960s were shorter than in previous years.

An apostrophe should follow a number only if it is possessive.

  • It was 1985’s worst storm. (Some editors feel this is awkward, but I let it stand when I see it in a manuscript.)

Numbers are frequently written numerically when writing books for middle grade and YA readers, as these stories often center around schools and sports.

A single digit, such as 7, is made plural with the addition of an s: 7s

Insert an apostrophe to denote possession when you must use a number to stand in for a person in an article, such as when an athlete is identified by a uniform number:

  • Number 8’s tackle won the day.

Contractions can be confusing. Two words made into one word are joined by an apostrophe:

  • Do not = don’t
  • We are = we’re
  • You are = you’re
  • They are = they’re

And so on. A list of contractions to watch for can be found at the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia: Wikipedia: List of English contractions

Conjunctions also can be tricky.  Simply add an s, such as in the phrase “There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it” or “A list of dos and don’ts follows.” We do keep the contractive apostrophe in don’t and simply add an s to make it plural.

Sometimes a single letter looks awkward when we just use an s to indicate plurality.

“How many h’s do you spell shh with?” (hs would look very odd.)

When pluralizing capital letters, we don’t use an apostrophe: Mike earned three Ds in English this year but still passed the class.

In a narrative, the two most common missions apostrophes have are to denote possession or indicate a contraction.

  • Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or, less commonly, “who has.”
  • Whose is the possessive of “who” or, somewhat controversially, “which.”
  • Their(s) is the possessive of “they.” (They’re proud to own it, it’s theirs, and it’s not there.)
  • Its is the possessive of “it,” and “it’s” is a contraction of it is.

Note that for both they and it, there is no apostrophe in the possessive form.

  • The texture of the wall —it’s rough. ( contraction: it is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its surface. (possession: the wall’s surface.)

In most English words an apostrophe indicates possession but can also indicate a contraction. The difficulty arises in the fact that both it and they are frequently part of contracted words.

In the effort to standardize English usage, early linguists made a choice to eliminate the apostrophe in the possessive form. They did this in the (futile) hope of ending confusion.

  • It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  • Its denotes possession: It owns it.
  • Their: they own it
  • They’re: they are

As with so many things that “seemed like a good idea at the time,” its and it’s will always cause problems for new and beginning writers. Inadvertent misuse happens even for old hands like me when I’m zipping along laying down the first draft of a manuscript, especially during NaNoWriMo.

We have to be vigilant and ensure we have looked for proper usage of its and it’s during revisions. Even the big traditional publishing houses admit sneaky errors like those like to go unnoticed until after publication.

In closing, the most common uses of the apostrophe aren’t too difficult once we learn the rules. Remember, apostrophes are integral parts of the traffic control system, signals that keep your words moving along at the right rate. Using them the way they are intended (and which readers expect) keeps the reader from throwing your book away.

I always suggest you set some time aside for writing new words every day, even if only for fifteen minutes. When we force ourselves to think about and use the basic rules of grammar regularly, we retain what we have learned.

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How contrasts drive the story #amwriting

The Buddha offered a morsel of wisdom that authors should consider, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien understood this quite clearly.

Written in a style that was popular one-hundred years ago, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a large reading commitment, one fewer and fewer readers are willing to undertake. Yet, compared to Robert Jordan or Tad Williams’ epic fantasy series, it is short, totaling only 455,175 words over the course of three books.

The story is sprawling, showing a world of plenty, ignorant of the disaster lurking at the edge of their border. Tolkien shows the peace and prosperity that Frodo enjoys and then forces him down a road not of his choosing. He takes the hobbit through personal changes, forces him to question everything. In the final confrontation with Sauron’s evil influence, Tolkien forces Frodo to face the fact he isn’t quite strong enough to destroy the ring. Frodo can’t give it up—he is willing to risk everything to retain possession of it when Gollum amputates his finger and takes the ring.

Frodo and Sam hunting down a case of genuine Canadian beer and spending spring break in Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t make much of a story, although it could have made an awesome straight-to-DVD movie.

Frodo’s story is about good and evil, and the hardships endured in the effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron. Why would ordinary middle-class people, comfortable in their rut, go to so much trouble if Sauron’s evil was no threat?

In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tad Williams epic fantasy Osten Ard series, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fiction. Both feature an epic quest where through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.

This use of contrast is fundamental to the fables and sagas humans have been telling since before discovering fire. Contrast is why Tolkien’s saga set in Middle Earth is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built. It’s also why Tad Williams’ work in The Dragonbone Chair, first published in 1988, changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. The works of these authors inspired a generation of writers: George R.R. Martin and  Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.

My favorite books convey the beauty of life by contrasting joy, companionship, and love with drama, heartache, and violence. No matter the setting, Paris or Middle Earth, these fundamental human experiences are personal to each reader. They have experienced pain and loss, joy and love. When the author does it right, the reader empathizes, feels the emotions written into the story as if they were the protagonist.

Hunger is a fundamental agony that can linger for years. People can survive on very little, and unfortunately, many do. To have only enough food to keep you alive, but never enough to allow you to grow and thrive forms a person in a singular way. Acquiring food becomes your first priority. Having a surplus of food becomes a reason to celebrate. To go without adequate food for any length of time changes you, makes you more determined than ever to never go hungry again.

Thirst is a more immediate pain than hunger. The human animal can survive for up to three weeks without food, but only three to four days without water. Rarely, one can survive up to a week. When one has gone without water for any length of time, even brackish water must taste sweet. And when one is without food, even food they would never normally eat will fill their belly.

War happens because of famine and deprivation. Wars are fought over water. We forget this when we have plenty to eat and never worry if we will have water or not as long as we can pay the bills.

Need drives the human story, which is why we love tales of heroism and great achievements. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—contrast provides the story with texture, turning a bland wall of words into something worth reading.  First comes the calm, and then the storm, and then the aftermath. Feast is followed by famine, thirst followed by a flood. War, famine, and flood are followed by a time of peace and plenty. This is our history, and our future, and is how good tales are played out.

Employing contrast gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. When an author makes good use of contrasts to draw the reader in, readers will think about the story and those characters long after it has ended.

I say this regularly, but I must repeat it: education about the craft of writing has many facets. We must learn the basics of grammar, and we must learn how to build a story. We learn the architecture of story by reading novels and short stories written by the masters, both famous and infamous.

We can’t limit our reading to the classics. Those books may be the basis for the way fiction is written today, but the prose and style don’t resonate with the majority of modern readers.

I have a piece of homework for you. You can copy and use the following list of questions as part of your assignment.

We may not love the novels on the NY Times bestseller list, and we may find them hard going, but stay with it. Go to the library or to the bookstore and see what they have from that list that you would be willing to examine. Your local second hand bookstore might have quite a few recent bestsellers in their stock of general fiction. Buy or borrow it and give it a postmortem. Why does—or doesn’t—the piece resonate with you? Why would a book that you dislike be so successful?

As I said at the beginning, the plot is driven by the events and emotions that give it texture. How did they unfold? Did the book have a  distinct plot arc? Did it have:

  • A strong opening to hook you?

  • Was there originality in the way the characters and situations were presented?

  • Did you like the protagonist and other main characters? Why or why not?

  • Were you able to suspend your disbelief?

  • Did the narrative contain enough contrasts to keep things interesting?

  • By the end of the book, did the characters grow and change within their personal arc? How were they changed?

  • What sort of transitions did the author employ that made you want to turn the page? How can you use that kind of transition in your own work?

  • Did you get a satisfying ending? If not, how could it have been made better?

Reading and dissecting the works of successful authors is a necessary component of any education in the craft of writing. Answering these questions will make you think about your own work, and how you deploy the contrasting events that change the lives of your characters.


Credits and Attributions:

Struggle for Survival by Christian Krohg, 1889, oil on canvas.  Now hanging in the National Gallery of Norway.

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg-Kampen for tilværelsen 1889.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilv%C3%A6relsen_1889.jpg&oldid=301415583 (accessed February 10, 2019)

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